On Agent Orange and war veterans

Dr. Thomas Wolber

From 1961 to 1971, vast areas of Vietnam were sprayed with Agent Orange herbicides. The purpose of the defoliants was to destroy the food sources of the Vietcong and to deprive them of canopy cover. Up to 4.8 million Vietnamese people were exposed to the toxin. The effects are still virulent today, resulting on tens of thousands of annual premature deaths and severe birth defects, even in second and third generations.

The Vietnamese are not the only ones suffering from the consequences of this toxic legacy. Some 2.6 million Americans served in the war, and many of them also became disabled after being exposed to Agent Orange. The Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes some fifty chronic diseases linked to Agent Orange, including Hodgkin’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, leukemia, diabetes, ischemic heart disease, and several cancers.

It took an epic battle with the VA, but today most Vietnam War veterans exposed to Agent Orange (except sailors) qualify for help and treatment, at least in theory. But the waiting lists can be long, and many have died without ever being seen, examined, and treated. However, there is still no help for their descendants although Agent Orange is expected to cause continued health problems for veterans and their children for at least five to seven generations.

The list of possible birth defects is long and includes things like congenital heart disease, clubfoot, cleft lip or palate, his dysplasia, and numerous diseases that most of us have never even heard of. The VA provides compensation for many severe birth defects among children of female veterans who served in Vietnam, but there are no equivalent benefits for the descendants of male veterans, who constitute the vast majority.

Anyone who believes that the Agent Orange issue is not something that affects the Delaware or Columbus community is mistaken. We have hundreds of veterans of foreign wars in our midst. One of them is Joe DiGenova, a Vietnam War veteran and the longest-serving City Council member in Delaware’s history. He is very concerned about the transgenerational effects of Agent Orange and has urged Ohio politicians such as Andrew Brenner and Pat Tiberi to support legislation that would extent help for victims of Agent Orange to children and grandchildren of male war veterans.

An article in the Columbus Dispatch last year (5/12/14) profiled John E. Pistick, 71, who lost his left arm due to soft-tissue sarcoma, a rare type of cancer that has been found in Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange. Two of his three children developed brain tumors during childhood. They are adults now, but because of their inability to live independently they still reside with their parents.

The brave men and women of the armed forces deserve our admiration and gratitude. Society owes them the best care available. They and their children should not have to worry about whether or not to receive medical help. The Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act of 2013 merits bipartisan support. It is a broad piece of legislation – perhaps too broad because it also includes assistance to Vietnamese nationals and environmental remediation. If it does not pass, then perhaps a more narrowly defined law that specifically addresses the needs of the American descendants of Vietnam War veterans needs to be introduced.


Dr. Thomas Wolber is an associate professor of German at Ohio Wesleyan.  He teaches all levels of German language, literature and civilization. In addition to those subjects, he specializes in comparative literature and environmental studies.